FOOTLOOSE
Granite Serenity
Friday, June 22, 2012

Claire Keeton and Marianne Schwankhart climb the Spitzkoppe — and have ‘Namibia’s Matterhorn’ all to themselves

ON the edge of the Namib desert is a remote camping ground, hidden away among granite formations, the most impressive of which is the towering Spitzkoppe.

When Marianne and I went camping and climbing at Spitzkoppe a few weeks ago, we were alone in this wilderness. We saw nobody on the rock during the day and the only sounds that broke the silence at night were the wind, intermittent thunder and animal cries.

Travellers do visit Spitzkoppe — known as the Matterhorn of Namibia — and the Pontok mountains stretching alongside it and fall under its spell, going back more than once, like both of us have done over the years. But this time we were in the park offseason. It was still too hot for comfort during the day and night, so it was virtually deserted.

Members of the local Damara community own and manage the Spitzkoppe Restcamp and live on the outskirts in a village. We met welcoming rangers when we paid our fees at the entrance to the park (which has no fence) and stored some food in a communal fridge for campers.

The fridge is located at a bar with a stone verandah and quiver trees near the entrance, but in this arid landscape, water seemed more alluring than any other beverage to us. By staying at Spitzkoppe early in the year, however, we were lucky to find a shallow rock pool in which we could swim and get water for washing. By now the rainwater had disappeared from most of the hollows carved out of the rock.

For this reason, 20 litres 
of water were central to the supplies we bought in Windhoek before heading out of town on the B2 towards Swakopmund. This road is straight and easy, passing through Usakos en route to Spitzkoppe, and we got to the park an hour before sunset.

Marianne suggested we camp below the southwest wall of Spitzkoppe, which is a steep, clean rock face with a curving arch.

This is also a wall on which she and a friend spent a precarious, freezing night balanced on a stone wedged in a chimney after they ran out of daylight, when they went off route on a difficult climb.

On this trip, we were planning to climb a harder variation of the “standard route” up Spitzkoppe, a route much easier than her previous ascent and the most popular route to the top.

Even if you have never climbed, you could do the standard route with an experienced guide as long as you are fit, not scared of heights and have a sense of adventure. Our plan was to descend down the southwest wall and walk into our camp at the end of the day.

This camping area has several flat sites marked out, usually under overhanging rock or with trees, as well as fireplaces on the ground. These prime sites even have two long-drop toilets built inside stone walls and open to the sky.

We used the fireplaces to braai (grill), but we didn’t need the flames to scare anything off as, unlike the true desert, Spitzkoppe isn’t densely populated with scorpions, spiders and snakes. Of course, it does have poisonous creatures and many more, like dassies, ground squirrels and buck.

Spitzkoppe has many paths to explore and it is fun, for children too, to scramble up the rough rock and explore its gullies, arches and secret corners. To avoid heat exhaustion during our climb, we decided to wake up and hike to the base of the mountain before dawn, to be ready to start the ascent as the sun came up.

We left at 5am and found our way to the base easily, following a detailed route guide to wind our way up and through large boulders. It is easy to get lost, but with attention to each landmark we made steady progress.

We reached the start of the climb around noon, after scrambling through chimneys and flattening ourselves out to squeeze through a narrow crack. We had five pitches of about 50m each to climb to the top and it all went smoothly, with each of us leading exposed pitches.

At about 2.30pm, we reached the top with its 360° views across the plains. We did an unusual descent that included another pitch of climbing — abseiling into a gully and climbing up a block — then going down again along the ridge.

The fun:effort ratio shifted as the descent, sometimes past thorny trees and nettles, stretched on and our water supply dwindled.

In the distance below, we saw a shimmering pool and got excited about jumping in and drinking the water.

But when we reached it, 
the pool was a mirage of pebbles. Luckily we had only about an hour further to the camp and were down by 4pm. Another swim, another braai. Another thunderstorm, followed by stars.

The next morning when 
we left the Spitzkoppe, which rises to more than 1,700 metres high, we watched it disappear in a haze, like another mirage.

  • Gallo Images
  • Photos: Marianne Schwankhart

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